Recently, a former music teacher told me about a 1st grade student with Asperger’s syndrome who, on their first encounter, announced in no uncertain terms: “I hate music!” Over the next two years, the student used abusive language, had meltdowns, and was physically aggressive toward his peers. Finally, the teacher scheduled some individual time with him and discovered that he believed he was terrible at music and couldn’t sing. She let him play some of the instruments in her room and then showed him the music composition software program GarageBand on her Mac. It turned out that he was fascinated with computers and quickly figured out how to compose a song. The next week, the teacher shared his song with the class and from that time on things began to change. He still struggled with his behavior, but over the next two years, she explained, “he played instruments in our concerts, joined the choir, had several solos, was in the musical. … [He] gave his heart and soul to music and continued to compose and mix music at home. He told his mother that whenever he was having a bad day, he would ‘go into his music’ and there he would find peace and calm.” This story illustrates how important it is to find out as much as possible about the strengths and abilities of students with special needs.
As a former special education teacher, I can’t count the number of times my students would come up to me and say, “Mr. A., when can I get out of this retarded class?” I began to understand that kids with special needs have two strikes against them. First, they have the disorder itself, and all the challenges it poses. But second, they have to spend a good deal of their time in school dealing with things they’re bad at. What we need to do is change this situation around so that right from the start, students with special needs are told about all the things they’re good at, and are engaged in activities that are based on those strengths.
Here are seven ways that you can activate the strengths of your students with special needs, whether you run a full-inclusion classroom, a self-contained special ed classroom, or anything in between: